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Business and Economy

Maine Company Thrives Providing State-of-the-Art Health Services - For Pets

Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Ben Shaw, Vets First Choice co-founder and CEO.

Imagine a company that would manage your medical records, remind you of appointments, ship medications to you, then send you a text or Facebook message to remind you to take them. It would even know what food is best for you, and send that to your house as well. This company exists, and can offer you all of these services - if you are a dog.

Portland-based Vets First Choice just got a large infusion of investment money to expand its system overseas.  A spacious office in the Old Port is the company's current headquarters.

 “We’ve had to move all of our offices in the last 12 months to accommodate growth,” says Ben Shaw, the co-founder and CEO of the veterinary services company, which has doubled its workforce since last year to 750 employees.

“So we have new offices in Omaha, we have just built a 25,000-square -foot specialty pharmacy in Houston, we have a brand new call center in Manhattan, Kansas," Shaw says. "And here in Portland, we moved into this building, filled up this building, and are now into an adjacent space on Pearl Street.”

The company employs about 150 people in Portland, where some huddle in conference rooms while others stand at desks with multiple monitors, or sit on beanbags with laptops. The walls are lined with whiteboards, coffee machines abound, and there’s even beer, on tap.

Shaw says the mission of the company is to help veterinary practices be more efficient and effective.  It can provide them with electronic medical records, pharmacy services, and robotically operated fulfillment centers, combining elements of companies such as AthenaHealth, Amazon, and Rite Aid.

It’s a coordination of care that Shaw says isn’t even seen in medical practices for people. “We laugh that we are showing what’s possible in health care when humans don’t get involved.”

Shaw says the services are helpful, because veterinary work is complex, and patients come with a wide variety of ailments.

“It could be dental, it could be infectious disease, it could be orthopedic injury," he says. "And a wide range of species: there could be dogs and cats, and different breeds, horses. And so one of the challenges veterinarians have is keeping up with which patients need what, who’s lapsed off of medication, who’s due for services, and how do they continue to meet the service expectations of their clients.”

Shaw has been steeped in veterinary medicine for much of his 38 years.  His father, David Shaw, is a founder of veterinary device manufacturer IDEXX, and is chairman of the board of Vets First Choice, which they co-founded in 2010.

One of the company’s innovations is the AutoShip system, which automatically sends medications to the owner when needed. It’s not only convenient, vets say it can make the owner more vigilant about complying with veterinary instructions. That means healthier pets, and also more medication sold—a win-win for pet-owners and vets.

"I think the biggest thing for us is just the AutoShip option," says Dr. Menolly Cote, of the Freeport Veterinary Hospital. “Especially like our flea-and-tick and heartworm medications. They’re something the animal is going to be on year-round, lifelong. And one of our flea and tick medications is every three months, and so it can be difficult to remember what months it’s due, and when to give it. And so it’s nice, because it just shows up in their mailbox, and you remember, ‘Fluffy needs their heartworm, or flea and tick, because it just arrived.’ So I really appreciate that.”

Industry analyst John Volk, of Brakke Consulting, says the new technology is helping vet clinics manage their varied functions.

“Keep in mind that most veterinary practices are really small mom and pop businesses," Volk says. "So they are not big corporations. So they are providing a wide range of services without a lot of corporate backing or resources. So services like Vets First Choice helps them provide the level of service that they require, provide the level of pharmacy that today’s pet owner expects.”

Ben Shaw says Vets First Choice is now serving thousands of vet clinics, and managing almost 160 million patient records. But he says there is still plenty of room to grow.

The company just received a massive investment—$223 million—some of it from Chinese investors. Shaw says the money will allow the company to expand into fast-growing markets in Europe and Asia.

“Fifty percent of pets coming into a vet practices in China are under the age of one," Shaw says. "We see a really high degree of cat ownership, and we are starting to see greater ownership around horses and dogs. In a way, Europe and Asia are much bigger veterinary markets than the U.S.”

With the cash in hand, the company would seem ripe for an acquisition, or a public offering. Shaw says neither is imminent, but he’s keeping his options open.

Meanwhile, Vets First Choice continues to grow. Last week it acquired two pharmaceutical companies, for an undisclosed amount.

 This story was originally published Aug. 21, 2017 at 4:32 p.m. ET.